Abraham Lincoln's real lesson for Labour? Compromise is over-rated

The idea that Lincoln was the consummate modern political compromiser has to answer one awkward fact: he abolished slavery

Share

The first reason why it's marvellous that the film Lincoln has
won acclaim
is it's mostly about a group of people discussing
ideas. That's not supposed to be popular. If anyone apart from
Spielberg had made it, they'd have come under pressure to change
it, so Lincoln barked "You've got 24 hours to pass this
anti-slavery bill, asshole", before jumping out of a window as
Congress exploded, then fighting Robert E Lee on the back of a
helicopter.

It's also hard to see how this film could earn money from merchandise, unless they're planning a computer game at which 15-year-old boys will spend all day shouting "Oh NO it's the corrupt Democrat, QUICK, devise a speech to convince him of the inalienable right to freedom of movement. YES, I'm on to Level 6." The virtue it illuminates most clearly, many commentators agree, is compromise.

Abraham Lincoln was only able to pass the bill because he was moderate and patient. Among those who have declared their admiration for this side of the man, and the film, is Alastair Campbell. Maybe that's because there's a Lincoln speech most people don't know, that goes: "I hold this truth to be self-evident, that if you write anything negative about me I'll twist your arse off and use it as a flowerpot on this solemn yet most sanctifying of days."

But the idea that Lincoln was the consummate modern political compromiser has to answer one awkward fact: he abolished slavery. He didn't announce an inquiry into slavery, at which some verbose Lord politely asked plantation owners if they'd ever whipped anyone so they could reply that they couldn't really recall very much and then leave. He didn't set up a focus group to see how abolishing slavery might play in key marginal seats, or propose a self-regulating body of slave owners or insist that clamping down on slavery would drive the owners abroad costing literally billions of jobs.

He didn't appear on Andrew Marr's show, muttering that as it's two years until the election he didn't want to be pressed into saying what his slavery policy might be; and didn't pledge to abolish it and then say that now he was Deputy-President he had to be realistic and treble the number of slaves instead, though he was a bit sorry about that.

In what way was passing the bill that made the abolition of slavery part of the constitution a compromise? Is it because he didn't sing "You're shit and you know you are" at his opponents? Rather than compromise, it must have been driven by tenacity, humanity and principles, or to put it another way, like no mainstream modern politician at all.

Part of what makes Lincoln so fascinating is that he did start out as a compromiser. He insisted the Civil War was only about maintaining the Union, and tried to keep northern racists happy by refusing to allow black people any positions in the army or government. But as slaves fled plantations, and demanded to be part of the army, he became convinced that slavery was central to the war. He set up black regiments, put black people in senior military positions, and became determined to abolish slavery altogether.

The southern states declared this was so outrageous that no peace would ever be possible. No doubt the radio phone-in presenters snarled "Have you read THIS? Now a council in Illinois says you can't even whip your own PROPERTY. What's going ON? It's political correctness gone MAAAAD." But the northern establishment also begged him to compromise. Go too far, they said, and you'll lose the middle ground. The newspapers were full of columns saying things like: "Freeing slaves is all very well, but they'll all come up here and Colorado's crowded enough as it is, and they'll keep us awake singing 'Amazing Grace' all night."

But as slavery became the issue driving the conflict, the Bureau of Coloured Troops enlisted almost 200,000 black soldiers, and as slaves ran off, the southern states started to collapse. In one sense Lincoln did retain the middle ground, but the common-sense view that politicians must always be moderate and compromise often ignores how the middle ground can move.

At the start of the Civil War, the idea of abolishing slavery seemed extreme, but by the end he was able to push it through, and now no politician is likely to say: "In order to win the middle ground at the next election, I announce we will reintroduce slavery." For the last battle of the Civil War, in a hugely poignant moment, Lincoln insisted the slave-trading port of Charleston was captured by a black regiment.

The common-sense view that politicians must always compromise often ignores how the middle ground can move.

So Labour leaders should watch Lincoln. Then at last Ed Miliband might make an impact with a speech that starts: "Mr Speaker, we are dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, and with humility we pronounce that according to that premise we shall declare unto those who place their billions into offshore accounts 'No you don't, pay your tax like everyone else before the eyes of God, you greedy pigs'."

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist / Physio / Osteopath

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for o...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager / Sales Executive - Contract Hire

£35000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leader provides c...

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Don’t pity me for eating alone, just give me a better table

Rosie Millard
Aerial view of planned third runway at Heathrow  

Heathrow expansion: This final 'conclusion' has simply fanned the airport flames

Chris Blackhurst
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most